Underground Mysteries in Tokyo

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In this blog post, charismatic tour leader and video game extraordinaire, Brett Plotz, joins the author, David Lovejoy, on a quest to clear the Tokyo Metro Real Escape Game. For those who aren’t in the know, “real escape games” are produced by a company named SCRAP, and call on participants to solve a series of puzzles, clues and logical conundrums to win – or “escape”. In this case, the clues led David and Brett through the underbelly of Tokyo’s notoriously complex metro system.

We stopped by the Tokyo Metro office in Ueno Station to pick up our game packs, which included a special edition 1-day metro pass, for ¥2,160 (about £12.50/$18.30). Brett asked the staff if the game was difficult, and he assured us it was, but couldn’t give us any hints. No problem, we’re tour leaders, solving puzzles on the go is one of our specialties.

We arrived at a nameless café with confidence, then pored over the contents of our game packs while enjoying a strong cappuccino and a very stale sandwich. I’ve only occasionally chewed bread with the consistency of rubber (this trumped all of those times) but I ignored the possibility that it was an omen warning us not to take anything for granted.

Brett puts his logical faculties to work
Brett puts his logical faculties to the test

We needed to shed light on our map, literally, looking at just one side made no sense, but when we held it up, Brett could use the key while I circled the stations on the other side. Teamwork at its finest. The other patrons of the crowded café looked at us like we were insane, the jury’s out whether this is because we used two sides of one map simultaneously, or because I actually ate that sandwich. Either way I can’t blame them – but it worked, I was still alive and no longer hungry, and our first station would be Toranomon on the Ginza line.

We vacated one desperately sought-after table to make our way into the belly of a complex, but logical, beast.

A well-oiled machine: the Tokyo Metro
A well-oiled machine: the Tokyo Metro

It seemed as if we had summoned the train by our arrival on the platform, but in reality, departures are fairly frequent across the Tokyo transportation network. Since the morning rush was safely behind us, we were able to grab seats and prepare for what awaited us on the other side.

It was pretty clear we needed to go out exit A6, but after that we'd need our thinking caps.
It was pretty clear we needed to go out exit A6, but after that we’d need our thinking caps.

After identifying the first four stations, we needed to solve two puzzles in each destination for a keyword, then tear open the page for a secret question, the answer to which was needed to find the penultimate station. Brett solved the first question in an impressive 0.73 seconds, leading to a premature assumption this would be a quick game.

No one points as well as Brett. No one.
No one points as well as Brett. No one.

The second question had us walking around like chickens scratching their severed heads for several minutes, forcing us to ask one of the Japanese couples playing the same game to let us look at the Japanese instructions to see if they differed from the English ones. They were essentially the same, but some of the wording in the English version helped us think outside the box.

“Look up and find 5 mirror alphabets” had us staring at the sky and contemplating all sorts of things. Like that bread, this game just might be tougher than we thought. Finally, Brett came through again and found symmetrical letters on the side of a nearby building that we’d use to fill our five blanks with.

The next step was a cipher, where we needed to subtract numeric values from the symmetrical letters Brett had found. This gave us the word “value” which, combined with the previous keyword, led to us finding a symbol on the back of the map that would unlock this section’s mystery. On to the next station, making the transfer from stumped to pumped.

The game took us to places we might otherwise overlook.
The game took us to places we might otherwise overlook.

We’d completed four stations in good time and were overconfident the end was near when we hit a major roadblock. Our keywords got us this riddle:

Spread all six butterfly wings.

Fold along the redline.

Complete the black heart.

Complete the electric blue square.

What? That was it. If we couldn’t solve this, we couldn’t progress.

We looked around at the many couples arriving at the same place for clues in their facial expression or actions, but they simply walked off casually as if they’d seen all there was to see. We were at our wits end, ready to throw in the towel and blame it on anything but our cognitive limitations. The whole while Thunder Dolphin roared in the background.

I do love roller coasters.
I do love roller coasters.

I proposed we take our minds off the problem at hand with a few g’s and let it solve itself. Sure enough, whilst queuing for the jet coaster (as it’s called in Japan), it dawned on us, origami! We needed to fold the instruction booklet in such a way that pieces of words would align in the holes of our keycard to reveal the secret station. Akasaka-Mitsuke! We were even more exhilarated as we flew above Tokyo Dome at 127kph with our hands in the air. This game was going to be beaten…by us!

If you’ve come this far, folding a map into a talking fish is mere child’s play.
If you’ve come this far, folding a map into a talking fish is mere child’s play.

Last station coming up… Tameike-Sannō.

Find a public art piece and play Amidakuji* to find the correct item. Find and shade beneath this item in the instruction booklet to reveal secret instructions to the last origami exercise, which will reveal the final answer.

(*Amidakuji is a type of lottery, or random-number assignment, commonly used in East Asian countries.)

This was an enigmatic brick wall, I didn’t care anymore about composure, I parked my rear on the ground in the corner of the station as rush hour approached. Whatever, I’ll wash my jeans later, this must be solved! We had everything splayed out before us, both kits, flipping them over, folding them into beautiful objects, a functional lawn mower, a cognizant robot, none of it mattered, it didn’t give us the answer!

How had it come to this, after we’d come so far? Well, we’d certainly tried, but life beckoned at the other side of day, and we weren’t as homeless as we appeared at that moment. Sometimes you know when you’re beat, and we resigned ourselves to being almost-winners. There are worse things you could be for sure, we’d already surprised ourselves a few times throughout the journey, wasn’t that enough?

Strangely, no. We were like climbers stuck just beneath the summit of an enormous mountain (in absolutely no way whatsoever), but we didn’t like the taste in our mouths. This is not why we got up this morning. Dazed and confused, we got on the last train we’d share together as we made our way back to our respective homes.

As we put the special edition 1-day metro pass into the slot of the ticket gate, time slowed way, way down. We were about to have a Keyser Söze moment, or more accurately a David Kujan moment. Everything we were trying to find was on that glorious little piece of magnetic plastic, and when placed in just the right way upon the proper folding sequence of the game kit in combination with the keycard’s sun touching the white arrow and moon on the black arrow, and…never mind all that, the answer was revealed! We could hold our heads high tonight, we felt capable, even if only in a giri-giri* capacity – but sometimes that’s all it takes.

(*giri-giri is a Japanese word that roughly corresponds to the English phrase “by the skin of your teeth”)

With our powers combined: game cleared!
With our powers combined: game cleared!

Looking back, that was quite a game, with a good range of difficulty. I’d play another game by SCRAP again, and that experience has inspired us to collaborate on a new game for Inside Japan Tours, so stay tuned!

David and Brett both live in Tokyo, speak fluent Japanese and work as tour leaders for Inside Japan Tours, taking people all over their adopted home country. For more information on our group tours, just take a look at our website or get in touch with one of our Japan experts.

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